The Silence Before I Sleep
by Adam-Troy Castro
Illustrated by Kurt-Huggins
Before I bothered traveling for six months to see it for myself, Sunfire had been described to me in glowing terms as a palace in the sky.
Phrases like that immediately trigger my alarms. I begin to suspect that someone’s trying to sell me something.
This particular little word-image came to me courtesy of one of the brokers I employ to triage the requests for my services. He’s one of the more repellent people I deal with, down to odor, appropriate enough for a guy who makes his living by helping connect people with contract killers; you won’t find many drawn to the work who qualify as charming. But it’s still a useful service. He spares me the jobs that would strike me as too dirty and many of those where I would be set up to fail.
Blowing smoke through the gap in his teeth, he offered the “palace” description with a smirk, one he meant me to see, sharing his position that the description was both literally true and the pretty summary that hid an uglier truth.
I didn’t ask the man to share the joke. I’d had enough exposures to his idea of humor. I did ask him if he was certain that the job would be worth my time. He said yes. Smirking.
Negotiating through him, I got agreement to a substantial kill fee in case I decided not to follow through, packed my assistant Justin and myself into a bluegel crypt for our months in transit, and emerged from hibernation in orbit around a planet known as Vireczin, so pretty and blue from orbit that I could not wait until a view from ground level gave me an excuse to hate it.
And yes, now that I’d ridden the elevator down to the planetary surface, I had to agree.
Sunfire was both one of the most beautiful structures in the Universe, and one of the most philosophically disgusting.
It was the only human construct in Vireczin’s northern hemisphere, and one of only two on the entire planet, the other an equally ridiculous palace many thousands of kilometers to its south. The two homes and their respective lands shared the planet between them, populated only by the two landowners and their respective support staffs, a vast population of thousands dedicated to supporting the whims of only two.
Beyond that, this solar system boasted no other civilization. No other cities, no other states, jut these two exercises in overwrought ego, planted in opposite hemispheres.
The wealth required to obtain control of an entire solar system, construct an entire Earth-sized planet in the Goldilocks zone, engineer its ecosystem to the most minute specifications, establish defenses that prevented any of known space’s peoples from coming in and just taking it all for themselves, and then—just as superfluous frosting—to construct this pair of outrageous palaces to inhabit was obscene: more than the collected income of some entire civilizations. And especially pointless, as both of the rich people involved chose to live on only a few square kilometers of it. It was the very definition of wretched excess for its own sake, nauseating even to someone like myself who had spent her career dealing with humanity’s most wretched.
Sunfire, the northern estate, sat atop what looked like an unsupported disk, floating two thousand meters above the verdant greenery of a rainforest to rival the mythical, long-vanished Amazon. As we circled the disk in our skimmer, I could make out rolling hills, gardens, a zoo, a community of smaller structures, and Sunfire itself, a palace with crystal spires stabbing upward as if intent on threatening the heavens. Each of the main structure’s competing towers had a mirrored surface studded with facets that resembled jewels, and beneath the tropical sun cast colorful reflected sunlight into the surrounding skies. Raging waterfalls plunged from four compass points along the periphery of the disk, to capture basins set within the forest canopy far below. Rainbows inevitably glowed around the clouds of mist.
To the naked eye, all of this did indeed appear to float without support, a feat that could be achieved given the level of technology the mistress of this palace could afford. Even so, I suspected trickery, and so I made a point of ordering my pilot Justin to circle at a distance, until I could produce an explanation for the illusion. For long minutes I could not arrive at one. Then it occurred to me to wonder just what fed those four waterfalls, and I got it. The estate rested on five transparent pylons, including one thick one at the center that was always in shadow, and four more slender that stood obscured within those waterfalls. What waters forever pumped up the central pipe forever left via those four tumbling waterfalls to forever collect in a subterranean cistern that forever fed the intake; no more impressive than any perpetual fountain, really, except by being larger.
The wealthy build many monuments to themselves. The corollary, that they crave these monuments, is all an impartial observer needs to resist what they want, awe.
I hated them all as much as I depended on them for my livelihood, and so I was pleased to uncover the artifice beneath the illusion. “Just who do they think they’re impressing?”
My assistant Justin turned to look at me. He was young and he was brilliant and he was happy for the work after escaping the hellhole world he’d come from, and I had never slept with him and never would, despite the knowledge that he would have liked to and that I would have enjoyed it as well. He said, “I don’t think they’re impressing anybody. I think they’re just making themselves feel better.”
“Than however they can’t help feeling.”
I glanced at him. “Please tell me what you’re talking about.”
“Look, it’s just a feeling. My father once told me a legend from old Earth, of a man of extensive and undeserved inherited wealth who tried to accomplish great things, but failed at everything he attempted. He went into business and after a couple of decades had to dissolve his enterprises to avoid poverty. He went into politics and was destroyed by scandal. He married women but twice managed to turn their love into hate. Ultimately he retreated to a vast estate, more palatial and stuffed with treasures than any man should need; and though it brought him no happiness, succeeded at last at utterly controlling some part of his map, and spared him the requirement to get along with other people. In the end he died alone, longing for one of the playthings of his youth.” He gestured at the floating monument to ego. “Being the master of all you survey spares you from ever having to survey anything else. It’s also a virtual guarantee of loneliness.”
People sometimes ask why I keep him around, if we’re not lovers; this kid who I once encountered on an assignment, and then took with me when I left. I say that it’s for moments like that.
Guilt never entered it, even though I’d needed to kill that garrulous old Dad of his, who had been trying to murder him at the time.
“Bring us in.”
Justin sent Sunfire’s security the request, and they assumed our nav, guiding us to a landing platform between waterfalls. Even there, excess ruled. The surface where they set us down was not some flat functional expanse of white or grey or black, designed to serve its assigned purpose without any nod to aesthetic concerns. Instead it was a bejeweled mosaic, glittering in the overhead sun and a genuine work of rainbow art that inevitably felt a shame to insult by parking an ugly vehicle on it. Another psychological trick, I suspected. Visitors, most of whom wanted something, would just have to feel bad about profaning this place’s beauty with their grubby little vehicles.
A reception committee of three waited at the edge of the platform, where the mosaic gave way to greenery and a curving path of flagstones marked what I presumed to be a preferred route to the palace. The greeters appeared to be humanoid, but their voluminous robes and concealing hoods rendered it impossible to tell whether they were male, female, some other gender, or for that matter even representatives of Homo sapiens. We were likely meant to wonder; more theatrics.
The second we left the climate-controlled environment of the transport’s ionic bubble, I felt the warmth of the sun, not tropical but close to it, a light breeze flavored with the scent of living things, and a subtle additional tingle that was neither atmospheric nor environmental; it felt good, like a massage, and was sufficiently pleasant that I knew that it had to be an engineered effect and not a natural feature of the planet.
“Smells good,” muttered Justin. “Almost as if they’re trying to cover up something.”
The three greeters stood with heads bowed in a manner that seemed less deference to a visitor than an effort to retain anonymity. A wholly neutral voice emerged from the tallest one, at the center. “Rage Laskin.”
“Just Rage, please.” I use my surname when legally required, but most of the time prefer the single syllable, the name I use to market my services.
“And this young man behind you—”
“His name’s Justin, but you need not address him. He will make no direct contribution to these negotiations.”
It sometimes helps to let the locals think that the kid’s just an unimportant luggage-carrier. Less danger for him, more opportunities for him to supplement our intelligence.
The hooded heads appeared to angle toward one another, miming silent negotiation by eye contact. This could have been communication or empty posturing, and again, it required conscious effort to remind myself that I shouldn’t care. I had not been hired yet. The existing staff owed me no explanations.
Then the tall one said, “We will take you to the countess.”
More false grandeur. There could be no royal titles on this planet, because there was no royal lineage; no history of inherited titles, going back generations of the inbred and spoiled defenestrating one another in order to edge ever closer to the throne. This was a private holding, shared by a count and countess who may have been torrid lovers once but had, from my intelligence, lived separately and within their own chosen keeps for years now. If they had titles, it was because they had at one point early in their residency considered it cute to bestow those upon themselves and thus force their respective support staffs into the contrasting status of peasantry. This was more privileged role-play on the part of people who had nothing better to do. But the role-play of powerful people, and so I was left to contemplate the inevitable questions that had been bothering me since my summons here: to wit, why the pretentious snots had chosen count and countess, instead of king or queen, or emperor and empress.
The flagstones became a path, and the path took us through sculpted topiary and dancing fountains—more use for all that water—and sculptures of dangling metalwork that captured the constant low breeze and turned it into music that sounded less like chimes than like actual human voices, singing in exquisite harmonies. Flitting explosions of color somersaulted by, if not birds then whatever this ecosystem used as their equivalent. There were insects, which I’ve always detested, but they did not seek us out or make a nuisance of themselves. There were also plenty of other hooded figures, their features just as shrouded, even as they drifted from one place to another, on errands that must have been hard to do with their arms inside their robes. We passed a display of dancing fire and a corral where tusked creatures unfamiliar to me but identified by the lead escort as something called elephants stood around in what could be imagined majesty or boredom, another paddock where pink amoeba the size of houses came together and then separated in a ritual that might have been conversation or coitus, and a third occupied by something that appeared to me to be on fire but didn’t seem to suffer from it. I let the escort go on until I said, “Does she make all of you dress like that?”
“When on duty,” it said.
“It seems cumbersome.”
The escort managed a shrug without any specific movement of the shoulders. “One quarter of Sunfire is a spacious walled compound reserved for staff. In there we dress, live our lives, as we please. When elsewhere on the estate, we respect our lady’s preferences regarding proper attire.”
“I was told that she never leaves the palace itself.”
“She never does,” the escort said. “But she does monitor us from her chambers, to make sure that there are no infractions.”
“Is that important?”
“To her it is.”
“Gee,” I said, with dripping irony. “It sounds like a rich life.”
Trailing behind us, Justin asked: “What about us? Do we have a dress code too?”
He was supposed to stay silent: seen but not heard, really. But it was a sufficiently cogent question that I let his intrusion pass while our guide replied.
“You are not yet on staff.”
“I will never be on staff,” I said. “Nor will he.”
“She’s right about that,” Justin said.
The escort said, “You are here to undertake an assignment.”
“Not the same thing. I provide services. But I only work for myself.”
The escort said, “Not all of us can afford to be so particular.”
It was a reminder that I, too, was privileged.
But then the guide added, “I suspect that she will own as much of you as she wants,” and there was a finality to it that made further argument an exercise in mere contradiction.
The ornate gate of the palace was still some distance away, and I presumed we would enter via the front, but then we walked around some concealing topiary and found a ramp heading down, into relative darkness. A servant’s entrance, then. Or one reserved for guests. I intended to be neither, but again, I was used to dealing with the obscenely wealthy and knew when to allow them their whimsies. The narrated part of our tour trailed off into silence as our surroundings became a featureless utility corridor devoid of any detail worth noting, even at the two or three intersections with identical corridors heading infinite distances to the left and right. This was a warren, all right, but warrens have no character.
Here, character of any kind was reserved for the lady of the house.
* * *
The general story, that I received only slight revisions to as we penetrated the castle, was that of a lady industrialist who had emerged out of nowhere, fully funded and with enterprises already up and running, thanks in large part to heavy investments from the independent software intelligences known as the AIsource.
Everybody insisted that she was the genius behind every innovation she introduced to interstellar commerce, and that the AIsource supported her in large part because in the typical pattern of human events she would have had to sell her brainstorms to some other megacorporation like the Bettelhines or Dejahcorp. Others said that it was ridiculous to imagine that any human being could outthink the AIsource, and that they were just using a front woman for their own intellectual property.
It didn’t matter, really. What mattered is that she became a charismatic, beloved figure, of the sort whose exciting entertained the billions whose existences were stuck at a more mundane scale. Over the decades of her carefully maintained youth, she blew through a dozen major love affairs, some with celebrities on her scale, some with royalty, and some with people chosen for their mere beauty: an excessive number of which ended not just with surfeit but with substantial venom and often hefty settlements to satisfy the lawyers.
Then came a man called Bastian Nagharly, with charisma to match hers and a backstory impossible to verify that placed her as the single great lost love of Arla’s life, returned from wherever he’d been to reclaim his place by her side. He was gorgeous, though with enough scars to keep him interesting; quick-witted, though never cutting; courtly, without ever being phony. He was such a genius himself that she confessed that he had been a financial partner all along; this, too, was impossible to verify.
Either way, their passion for one another ignited the media, and was presumed to be one of the great love stories known to humanity. They certainly couldn’t keep their hands off each other, even in public, and they developed the cutest habit of finishing each other’s sentences. They were joined at the hip until the strains started to show in multiple public explosions. There were well-distributed images of them glowering at one another, and details of them barely speaking.
To everyone’s surprise, they put their holdings under a trusteeship and announced their shared retirement on this customized garden world. Where, from day one, they had lived in separate estates.
Nobody claimed to know what had happened to sour everything.
We reached what I presumed to be an elevator, which, according to our escorts, only I was authorized to enter. I secured the promise that they would find Justin somewhere comfortable to wait and went in. The doors to the utility corridor closed, and for a heartbeat I waited for the car to move; but instead there was a bright flash of light, and another set of doors opened, revealing that this was not an elevator but a decontamination chamber, sterilizing any pathogens I might have brought with me from the world outside or the one I had been summoned from, seven standard months ago.
Inside I found a vast black space with no visible walls and a circle of relative light inhabited by an old woman in an ankle-length tunic. Nobody that rich needs to look old—you can be a child for centuries, if you want—but she had a complexion like parchment and a craggy face that advertised a level of antiquity I’d never seen, the age nobody with financial resources ever needs to be, when the eyes and cheeks grow sunken and the features however lined with wrinkles develop a closer resemblance to the death’s-head grimace that we all hide beneath the flesh. She had clouded eyes, but as I stepped in, her gaze followed me with sufficient accuracy that I presumed the effect to be artificial, as much a façade as the glory of the palace above.
She said, “I’m Arla DeQuy. And you’re Rage.” She allowed a pause before adding, “The renowned assassin.”
I refrained from snorting. “There is no such thing as a renowned assassin. Any such person is known to the authorities and in danger of getting her head blown off.”
She did not smile—I got the impression she was incapable of it—but she did tilt her head in a manner than expressed her appreciation. “Renowned among those with the resources to know those who stand out in the profession.”
“Even then, my lady, I never self-identified as such. If I called myself that, most localities I entered would imprison me or kill me, just on general principles.”
“Really.” Her forehead crinkled. It had the texture of paper crumpled and then unfolded, only to be crumpled and unfolded again, leaving creases sufficient to mark multiple lives and not just one. “And yet you are said to be the very best at the art.”
“People misreport my methods. My approach to the work is different, and not simple enough to be contained by such a blunt label.”
More crinkling above the eyes. “I am sure I’ll find the distinction interesting. You are very beautiful, Rage.”
Given how easy it is to change faces, I have always considered that an empty compliment. Might as well praise my pants. But I nodded.
She led me to a spot where, on command, a round table and two low chairs rose from the floor to accommodate us. More theatre, I guessed. A bottle filled to the brim with pink liquid arrived with the table, flanked by two glasses thin enough to discourage any drink more substantial than a sip; not flutes, but tubes. She poured the drinks, placed one before me and another in front of herself, without telling me what it was or asking if it was anything I wanted. Then she sat and studied me through the eyes of extreme age, her face dipped to angle that studious gaze past the overhang of her brow. I noticed that she did not touch her drink, so I did not touch mine.
Then she said, “Be honest. What do you think of my home?”
“You don’t envy it?”
“Not it or you. I don’t envy sadness.”
“You are a perceptive woman. All this is sad. It is a monument to sadness. Not one square centimeter of it functions as anything but a pretty wrapper on a dirge.”
I didn’t tell her that the perception had been my assistant’s, not mine. “I do have a solution to that, countess.”
“Stop being sad.”
Her forehead became another eruption of crinkles. “You think that possible?”
“Countess, I am also by most measures a woman of considerable resources. I don’t own worlds, but I still have a home on a planet I love, clothes to wear, food to eat, the company of people who interest me, the leisure time to enjoy myself doing the things I want to do, and enough in the way of savings to work only at the tasks that intrigue me. Possessing comparatively nothing, by your scale, I nevertheless enjoy a full life. I am not inclined to feel sympathy for any abhorrently wealthy person who wishes me to consider her pathetic.”
Anger flared in her cold eyes. “And if I’ve lost a part of me I’ll never get back?”
“So what? You’re incomplete. I’m incomplete. The whole damn human race is incomplete. We fight to live anyway because it’s the only shot we’ve got.”
Her expression was so blank that I wondered if I’d said too much. I wasn’t frightened of the prospect; the worst she could do was kill me, and nobody excels in a career like mine without having a healthy disrespect for her own survival. The more likely outcome was banishment, the decision on her part that she didn’t want to hire me after all, and this I’d find at most irritating, the months of wasted travel for a commission that failed to materialize.
When she finally spoke, it was a course-change. “You refuse the title of assassin.”
“Because I frame my responsibility as finding solutions to problems. That doesn’t always mean killing people. I require only that you tell me the nature of the problem you have with your target. I tell you in advance that I will search for a less extreme solution. Most of the time, I manage the trick.”
“Interesting. But if you are not an assassin, then—”
“I’m a consultant.”
“Do you actually intend to be that banal?”
“It’s more accurate than ‘assassin.’”
“I’ve always found it a euphemism for pretending expertise while doing nothing.”
“Not in my case. If I agree to the job, I will solve your problem, or not take payment.”
“And if that requires an assassination?”
“The work does sometimes involve casualties.”
“And is that not the same thing as killing on order?”
By this time in my life I could have this conversation in my sleep. “I don’t take assignments I cannot live with. If I can’t, I won’t waste your time by pretending I’ll take the job, or your money by taking payment for anything other than the transactional expenses involved in preliminary research.”
“So your ethics are situational.”
“Potential clients imagining me a mere monster-for-hire have asked me to murder families, to massacre entire communities, to carry out vendettas against innocents who had done nothing but offend those in power. I’ve had no problem saying no to such requests and, if I’m sufficiently revolted, carrying out an intervention just as extreme to prevent the contract from ever being offered to anyone else.”
“‘Just as extreme’?”
“I have clearly stated limits about how dirty I’m willing to get, how much evil I’ll let pass without intervention. If you have any concerns that I might find your cause indefensible, then tell me right now that we can’t come to terms, and I’ll just leave, without further question.”
She sipped from her tube, licking the thick pink liquid from her lips before continuing. “And the young man?”
“He’s an assistant. No need to worry about him.”
“Should I believe that?”
The question discomfited me—I didn’t want any special attention accruing to Justin—but I shrugged it off. “I don’t care what you believe.”
“Very well. We’ll concentrate on our business relationship. In the hardly unlikely event that my request did revolt you, just how would you propose to survive any perception on my part that you had now become part of the problem?”
It was a smart question, and I appreciated that she asked it without dissembling. “If you believe me capable of accomplishing whatever you want, you also believe me capable of protecting myself. Trust me when I say that didn’t travel this far without first making my own extensive arrangements to survive this meeting—or at the very least to ensure that neither you nor your palace would survive anything happening to me.”
She said, “It sounds like the safest thing to do is just pay you a retainer and ask you to go away.”
“Could be. If your cause isn’t justified.”
The ensuing silence lasted almost a full minute before she lowered the thin glass to the table. When she did I saw that at some point during the process of sipping from it she’d spilled a little and that the drop sat beside the base of the glass like spilled blood, if spilled blood could be pink; the comparison came to mind regardless, and I knew without further inquiry that I was not the first contractor she’d come to, or the tenth. If I was not her last hope, she would never be satisfied with whoever came after me.
“What you said, about me sitting in the darkness, wallowing in my misery: it’s true.”
“It’s also true that the man I wish to send you after made it impossible for me to do anything else.”
Usually, when a woman says that of a man, there is only one possible explanation. “Did he—”
“Please. Rape is the act of lesser monsters, of simple everyday brutes, of predators lurking in alleys or taking advantage of their own physical strength. If his crime against me were anything as banal as that, then I promise you, I would have used all the resources at my disposal to recover from the trauma. I would have moved on and taken my primary revenge in the way that many are forced to, by living. No, Rage. What this man has done to me is an entirely more intimate violation. It requires a form of vengeance far more substantial than merely killing him, and if you were kind enough to take my contract, I don’t want him dead. I want him alive but miserable.”
She had still left me with more questions than answers, and for a moment they all fought each other, for the honor of being the first spoken. Ultimately I asked the most practical. “How?”
“I want him to live with the knowledge that he has nothing to look forward to, nothing to fill his years with save the same emptiness I feel. I want him to know, as I do, that he will never draw breath for any reason but the dry tyranny of his own respiration. Your challenge is managing that. Will you take that commission, or must I reimburse you for your time and send you on your way?”
It had been years since a client’s anger had so completely set my heart to pounding.
After a few seconds I said, “I haven’t accepted the assignment yet. But I’ll get back to you.”
Copyright © 2021. The Silence Before I Sleep by Adam-Troy Castro